A Sermon for Chews UMC 24 October 2011 – Matthew ch. 1
“The Begats and The Be-Leavers”
About a month ago I saw this Norman Rockwell painting of a family tree, and the image has stuck I my mind ever since then. At the top, Rockwell painted a sweet-faced innocent looking toddler. Then he painted the parents – who looked normal enough. Next in line he painted both sets of grandparents, one looking a bit refined and the other set a bit rough-cut. The great-grandparents of one side looked to have settled the frontier while the other set looked like those who tended the shop that supplied the explorers. The branches become more and more telling, and after seven generations Normon Rockwell roots his family tree painting in a buccaneer and pirate queen. He does not try to mask or paint a nice face – literally – on what appears to be a dodgy family history.
It reminded me a bit of my time in Afghanistan in 2002 when I learned that lineage is vitally important across Afghan culture. So important, in fact, that a boy could be stopped at any time and asked to name his father, grandfather, etc. out to seven generations – and if he didn’t know the names, then he could be beaten.
I know the names of three generations. I know that Clarence, on my dad’s side, knew Babe Ruth – I have a picture of them together. I know that Flaviano, on my mom’s side, arrived in America on a boat from Italy. Beyond that, I don’t know.
How hard is it to learn just seven names? But are they really just names? I think if those names – the people those names represent – were different, then I would be different.
I grew up thinking the “Begats” (as we called them) in Matthew 1 were boring. Yet there are stories in these “Begats”. There are stories in these names.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah & Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Boaz…
One thing that struck me as odd is the way the author chooses to write the names. The author is beginning the story of Jesus – the Messiah. Yet like Rockwell and his buccaneer, the author does not gloss over the grittiness and scandals that occurred along the way. For example, the author could have just written, “David begat Solomon.” Or, he could have written, “David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba,” hoping those unfamiliar with this sinister story may have thought she was just another of the king’s wives. So, in the story of the lineage of the Saviour of the world, why does the Gospel of Matthew say, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah”? Why is it necessary to remind the readers of the faults and failures of the fore-bearers?
One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, has written, “The journey of any one of us is in some ways the journey of us all.” And I think this holds true for these stories as well. The stories represented in these names are stories of courage and stories of obedience. They are stories of sin and shame and redemption. The stories of some of these people who are seen as heroes and pillars and examples of God-followers reveal that to be loved by God and to be used by God and to be chosen by God one does not have to be perfect. And in this way they are our stories, aren’t they? I wouldn’t mind if people told certain stories about me – the ones of courage and hope, obedience, faithfulness, and sacrificial love. And I would prefer the stories of my shortcomings, sin, and screw-ups be overlooked or swept under the rug.
Yet the “begats” remind us that, as Christians, what makes our stories good – what makes them worth telling – are not our actions of faithfulness vs. faithlessness or our successes outweighing our failures. Rather what makes our stories good is that we are valued beyond worth and loved beyond measure by God who promises to make all things new in Jesus Christ. What makes our stories worth telling is that no success will earn more of God’s love and no failure will exclude us from God’s love.
While these “begat” stories have themes familiar to the stories of our lives, these stories can also remind us of more than our own stories. These stories remind us of God’s story, too, because these stories – and our stories – cannot be fully told without mentioning God’s boundless grace, God’s amazing faithfulness, and God’s unfailing love towards us.
So, how are you allowing God to make your life story Good? How are you allowing God to be praised when something seems successful? How are you allowing God to redeem and restore that which seems tattered, broken, no-good, painful, and shamed?
The stories in the “begats” go beyond holding similar themes or providing metaphors for how we live. These “begats” are the stories of the Church. These “Begats” are the stories of our lineage -literally. There are no insignificant people in God’s story of redemption. I’ve heard it put this way, “Christianity exists today not because of the few famous people from history – Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc. Rather, Christianity exists today because of the nameless and faceless faithful followers of Jesus.”
Last week I attended a worship service at Global Ministries, and a portion of the service took time to have a memorial role call – the names of those in Methodist missionary service who passed on in this past year. Unfortunately, I knew none of the names, and I knew none of the stories. Yet I know that God used these people in the great story of redemption of all Creation. It made me wonder what people will think of when they hear my name read on that role in the future. Will they even be able to distinguish it from the other names or will they blur together in two-and-a-half pages of other faceless people? Does it even matter?
The following day I attended the commissioning service for 10 missionaries in First UMC of Flushing, NY – a Korean congregation. We heard that in late 1800s the first Methodist missionaries went to Korea, which was only a few years after the first Christian missionary to Korea had been burned alive because of his beliefs. And to think that 150 years later a Korean Methodist church hosted a commissioning service for 10 more Methodist missionaries. What amazing change and transformation took place because people attempted to live faithful lives even though they were not quite sure of the results or the effects of how God would use their lives for the Body of Christ decades later.
Here at Chews you just celebrated your 200th Anniversary. Yet, I had not heard of Chews UMC until three months ago when I met a guy named Wil Wilson at the Global Ministries Young Adult Missionary Training in New York. He told me how supportive this congregation had been of him entering missionary service. That led to a conversation with Pastor Bill about a time to come and share with y’all, and it excited me to hear the stories around Wings of the Morning and Missions Sunday and all of the various people that made today possible.
It started me thinking, “20 years from now I wonder how many people will tell stories to their congregations in Africa about how their lives had been in danger and if it had not been for the help of the an airlift they would have died? Or, how many will tell of how their lives had been changed by a mentor, whose life itself had experienced transformation while a student years before at a campus ministry in Fargo, ND where he/she met God in a new way through some guy named Wil?” Each of you will have played a part in those stories whether or not those people know you by name. That is amazing!
This is why Chews UMC remains a vital member of the body of Christ, and why each of you are vital to Chews. More than that, however, by supporting Wil and by supporting Aviation ministry, you are supporting Global Ministries missionaries around the world. By supporting them you are strengthening the Body of Christ around the world.
God invites each of us into His holy work of healing the world, and in so doing God calls each of us as “believers” to go – to be “leavers” – and support the believers around the world. There are many ways to go – to leave our comfort zones. For some it may be sacrificial giving to Wil or Wings of the Morning ministry or writing a letter to them to say that you are praying for them on a specific day each month. It may look like going to the food pantry and being a vessel of God’s compassion and love with those who are struggling to make ends meet. Going may look like smiling at the clerk in the store and acknowledging his or her presence in this world. Or maybe it means talking to that “weird” co-worker that everyone else ignores. And for some, it may mean physically going to another place in the community or in this world. I don’t know, but God knows!
What we see in this list of “Begats” are those who strived to live follow God faithfully. They relied upon God’s grace and faithfulness to accomplish the work of Creatin’s redemption because of their greatest success and in spite of their worst failures. We don’t know how God will use the stories of our lives in the lives of others to transform the world. Yet we can know this: God is faithful and good, and God will use us – our stories – in their entireties of success, failure, grace, pain, redemption, and love. God will use us for the Kingdom and to strengthen the Body of Christ in this world because God loves us. And that is Good News. Alleluia. Amen.